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Toddlin' Back to Chicago

Chicago has something to offer everyone, from architecture aficionados to art addicts, from gourmands to sports fans. Since the AAO last visited for its annual meeting in 2000, a number of exciting new restaurants have sprung up and a new mayor has been elected, but the Windy City’s great institutions remain among the finest in the world.

Here is JCO’s annual guide to attractions in the AAO convention city, previewing this year’s May 13-17 meeting.

Weather and Transportation

May is generally one of Chicago’s most pleasant months, with highs in the mid-60s and lows near 50°F. Since rain is always a possibility and Lake Michigan breezes can be fierce, be sure to bring a jacket.

The city is served by O’Hare International Airport and the closer-in Midway Airport. Taxi fares to downtown run about $40 from O’Hare and $25 from Midway. Shuttle services are also available at around $25 one-way from O’Hare and $15 from Midway. Trains, known as the “El” because of their elevated tracks, are run by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA, www.chicagotransit.com), with a cash fare of $2.25 per trip; three- or seven-day passes can be purchased at the airport CTA stations or at the two Chicago Visitor Centers (www.explorechicago.org).

Architecture and Tours

If architecture is your passion, bring walking shoes and a camera. Register early for the Chicago Greeter program (www.chicagogreeter.com), matching small groups of visitors with local volunteers who provide free guided walking tours of many Chicago neighborhoods. Larger groups are handled by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which offers 85 walking, bus, bicycle, and Segway tours, plus a popular 90-minute Architecture River Cruise in which certified docents describe the history and architecture of more than 50 buildings along the three branches of the Chicago River. An early-evening tour is highly recommended.

Visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust website (www.gowright.org) for details on planning your own pilgrimage to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, the Rookery in downtown Chicago (new home of the Trust’s offices), or the Robie House on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. AAO conventiongoers staying on after the meeting can join the 37th annual Wright Plus architectural housewalk (May 21), featuring rare interior tours of eight private homes designed by Wright and his contemporaries, all in the Oak Park area (about 10 miles west of Chicago’s Loop).

Chicago skyline at sunset. Photo © Evgeny Moerman, Dreamstime.com.

Other tour options abound in the downtown area and farther afield. Chicago Trolley and Double Decker offers hop-on, hop-off convenience in the heart of town. Chicago Detours provides multimedia guided cultural tours. Caravan Tours, City Segway Tours, Shoreline Sightseeing, and Walk Chicago feature a variety of transportation options and tour themes.

Food tours are also available: Chicago Dine Around chauffeurs its guests on a “progressive dining tour” in luxury coaches; Chicago Food Planet visits historic mom-and-pop specialty stores and ethnic eateries, with a side of history and architecture; Chicago Pizza Tours lets visitors enjoy “Chicago One Slice at a Time”; and Tastebud Tours features the Gold Coast and Millennium Loop neighborhoods, including some of the city’s most famous restaurants.

Chicago’s public art—murals, sculpture, and multimedia installations—is as varied and exciting as its architecture. Of the hundreds of artworks in public spaces throughout the city, “The Bean” (Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millennium Park), Pablo Picasso’s sculpture in Civic Center Plaza, and Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo” may be the best-known examples. A detailed brochure with photos and locations is downloadable from www.cityofchicago.org.

For a bird’s eye view of the entire Chicago area and beyond, visit Skydeck Chicago, with its glass-box ledges on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), or the John Hancock Observatory’s open-air sky walk at 1,000 feet. Both locations are open late into the evening for spectacular views of the city at night.


Visitors can obtain free or reduced rates for many area attractions with either the Go Chicago Card (www.smartdestinations.com) or the Chicago CityPass (www.citypass.com).

Art Nouveau apartment building doorway in Logan Square neighborhood on North Side of Chicago. Photo © Steve Geer, iStockphoto.com.

(Map reprinted by permission of the Chicago Office of Tourism; www.explorechicago.org)

A bold new Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano, makes the Art Institute of Chicago the second-largest museum in America (next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Exhibits on display during the AAO meeting include a photographic retrospective, “American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White”; “June Wayne’s Narrative Tapestries: Tidal Waves, DNA, and the Cosmos”; and “The Challenge of American Style: Richard Morris Hunt and the American Renaissance in Architecture”. Nearby, The Field Museum of natural history showcases “The Horse” and “Design for a Living World”. The Museum of Science and Industry offers a display of “Chicago’s Greenest Home” and a new version of “Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life”, with human specimens preserved through plastination.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has exhibits by Jim Nutt, Susan Philipsz, and Thomas Ruff. The Chicago Cultural Center presents “Your Honor! The Mayors of Chicago, 1837-2011” in time to celebrate the election of incoming Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Chicago History Museum is featuring “Lincoln Park Block by Block” and “Lincoln’s Chicago”. More specialized museums include the Chicago Children’s Museum, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Glessner House Museum, the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, and the National Museum of Mexican Art.

The Art Institute’s bronze lions watch over Michigan Avenue. Photo © Peter Spirer, Dreamstime.com.

Shedd Aquarium offers a special show on sea jellies; Adler Planetarium spotlights telescopes. Nature lovers may want to take in the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Notebaert Nature Museum (featuring the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven and “Birds of Chicago”), the Garfield Park Conservatory, or the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Or just stroll around the gardens of Millennium Park or browse the shops, promenades, and attractions of the Navy Pier.

Performing Arts

Theatrical presentations during the convention include Million Dollar Quartet and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (for kids 3 and older) at the Apollo Theater; Blue Man Group at the Briar Street Theatre; Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre; Peter Pan at the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center; Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss at the Goodman Theatre; Sex with Strangers at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company; and The Gospel According to James at the Victory Garden Theatre. For comedy fans, the legendary Second City offers dinner-show packages including Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies and Fair & Unbalanced. The Chicago Center for the Performing Arts features improv comedy.

The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University is showcasing two internationally recognized dance companies: Joffrey Ballet, with premieres from three rising choreographers (May 4-15), and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ailey’s Revelations! (May 18-22).

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under music director Riccardo Muti, presents Yo-Yo Ma performing Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto (May 12-14) and the Reinecke Quartet in chamber music by Franz Schubert, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Felix Mendelssohn (May 15). CSO musicians will also collaborate in an unusual program called “Mercury Soul”, billed as “a cross between a 21st-century ‘salon’ and a club party”, on May 13 at Redmoon Theatre. Elvis Costello will appear with The Imposters, his latest backup band, at the Chicago Theatre on May 15.

Restaurants and Nightlife

Dining suggestions are provided by our sister publication, Sommelier Journal. Some consider Grant Achatz’s Alinea to be the finest restaurant in America; in fact, the Michelin Guide recently awarded it three stars, the highest rating. Achatz has just opened a companion restaurant, Next, at which tickets are required instead of traditional reservations.

Laurent Gras’s L2O was also crowned by Michelin with three stars. Other culinary temples in the city include the redoubtable Charlie Trotter’s, Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel, Balsan and RIA at the Elysian Hotel, NoMI at the Park Hyatt, Jean Joho’s Everest, MK, Naha, Spiaggia, Topolobampo (first Mexican restaurant to earn a Michelin star), Tru, and Zealous.

Chicago’s steakhouses are led by the original Morton’s and include all the national chains. A local favorite is Benny’s Chop House. Other trendy locations recommended by insiders are Arami (sushi and ramen), The Bristol (new Midwestern), Café Spiaggia (next to Spiaggia), Ceres’ Table (contemporary Italian-American), Cibo Matto (theWit Hotel), Epic (three floors and a rooftop bar), The Gage (Irish gastropub), La Sardine (French bistro), Mercat a la Planxa (designer tapas), Piccolo Sogno (pizza and pastas), Publican (Paul Kahan’s down-home sister to his highly regarded Avec and Blackbird), and Sprout (French-American bistro).

Casual wine and cocktail bars also abound; top choices are Pops for Champagne, Roof, Webster’s Wine Bar, and The Violet Hour. Of course, Chicago’s blues scene is world-renowned, anchored by Blue Chicago, B.L.U.E.S., Buddy Guy’s Legends, House of Blues, and Kingston Mines. For traditional jazz and other live music, check out Andy’s Jazz Club, The Flat Iron, Green Mill Jazz Club, Underground Wonder Bar, or The Wild Hare (reggae).


Chicago’s shopping mecca is the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue, highlighted by 900 North Michigan Shops, The Shops at North Bridge, and Water Tower Place. Other popular shopping districts include Oak Street (near North Side, off Michigan Avenue) and Wicker Park-Bucktown (northwest of downtown).

Art collectors should visit the Fine Arts Building, a National Landmark building designed specifically for working artists. For gallery hopping, try Douglas Dawson Gallery (ethnographic art), Hildt Galleries (19th- and 20th-century oils and watercolors), Echt Gallery (contemporary sculpture), Mars Gallery (contemporary), McCormick Gallery (contemporary), Stephen Daiter Gallery (photography), or Zolla/Lieberman Gallery (contemporary).

Sports and Recreation

On the North Side at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs play three-game series with Seattle (May 10-12) and San Francisco (May 13-15). The Chicago White Sox follow at U.S. Cellular Field on the South Side with two-game sets against Texas (May 16-17) and Cleveland (May 18-19) and a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers (May 20-22).

Cyclists can rent equipment and arrange tours at Bike Chicago or Bobby’s Bike Hike. Golfers will enjoy the two 18-hole courses (Port and Starboard) at Harborside International Golf Center in East Chicago, not far from downtown. Other noteworthy area courses include Cantigny Golf and Tennis Club (Wheaton), Cog Hill Golf and Country Club (Lemont), Kemper Lakes Golf Club (Hawthorn Woods), Orchard Valley Golf Course (Aurora), and Pine Meadow Golf Club (Mundelein).

Fig. 1 Chicago skyline at sunset. Photo © Evgeny Moerman, Dreamstime.com.
Fig. 2 Art Nouveau apartment building doorway in Logan Square neighborhood on North Side of Chicago. Photo © Steve Geer, iStockphoto.com.
Fig. 3 (Map reprinted by permission of the Chicago Office of Tourism; www.explorechicago.org.)
Fig. 4 The Art Institute’s bronze lions watch over Michigan Avenue. Photo © Peter Spirer, Dreamstime.com.


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